Friday, March 6, 2015

Engaging Employees in Meeting Financial Goals

If your firm is like most, meeting financial goals is primarily the responsibility of owners and managers, not employees. In fact, as I wrote in a previous post, most A/E firms don't even share financial information with staff. I likened this to playing in a game where only the coach knows the score. The evidence is strong that engaging rank-and-file employees in meeting financial goals is a formula for success, but perhaps not for the reasons you might assume.

The first challenge in getting staff actively involved in meeting the numbers is convincing them that it's important, or even a good thing. Profit-making has never been so unpopular in this country. Big companies, in particular, are routinely demonized in the news media. The rich are portrayed as selfish rather than successful. Even the president contributes to these negative characterizations.

Not surprisingly, one poll found that 42% of Americans believe there should be a limit on how much profit a company can make (did you know that oil companies make about half as much profit margin as A/E firms?). A Pew survey found that more millennials favor socialism than capitalism (although another survey suggested that they didn't really understand the difference).

Do these trends matter when you're trying to engage employees in the profit-making mission of your firm? I think they do. Even without the bad publicity, you might struggle to get employees to take ownership for financial performance. After all, what's in it for them? Don't think that the promise of a slightly bigger bonus is going to motivate the average employee to really care about the numbers.

There are probably some entrepreneurial types in your firm who enjoy the money side of the business. But most need a different tact to get them excited about revenue, profit, and cash flow. Here's what I suggest:

Learn to describe the real value of what you do. Most employees, especially the younger generations, are looking for meaning in their work. They want to feel that what they do matters—beyond making money for the company. Unfortunately, many technical professionals struggle to connect our work to its true value. We tend to be task oriented rather than goal oriented. We're prone to focus on what we do rather than what we accomplish (for proof, read your firm's project descriptions).

The old fable of the quarry workers illustrates this point: A man comes upon three quarry workers and asks them what they're doing. The first worker replies, "I'm cutting building stones from this rock." The second says, "I'm earning a living to support my family." The third understands the real value of his work: "I'm building a beautiful cathedral." 

When your employees believe they're "building cathedrals," it puts the firm's financial performance in a whole different context. Profit then isn't just money in the owners' pockets, but a measure of value delivered. Define what success really means for your company, and the financial metrics become a way to keep score. And most people love to win.

Educate employees on what the numbers mean. Just as many millennials couldn't accurately describe the difference between socialism and capitalism, the chances are that most of your staff don't understand the financial terms that are important to management. So teach them. But do so in the context of value, success, and winning, not just profit-making.

Benchmarking against the industry can be useful in this way. To talk about how your firm is performing compared to similar firms can bring out the competitive nature in your people, increasing their interest in meeting the metrics. But don't just settle for equaling industry medians; strive to be better than average. That will generate more staff enthusiasm for the quest.

How you present the numbers also matters. Avoid spreadsheets for broader employee consumption. Most don't really understand how to interpret them. Charts and graphs are preferable. Besides being easier for most people to understand, they also are better for showing trends—important in gauging progress towards your goals.

Show the connection between what employees do and financial results. An employee may see her main duty as creating a quality work product, but fail to understand the business impact if it takes her twice as much time as was budgeted. A senior professional may not recognize that his doing a task that a less experienced and less costly coworker could have done can erode project profit or delay payment.

In most A/E firms the connection between project work and financial results is a vague concept to the average staff member. For many, simply having a better understanding of how their efforts benefit the bottom line can increase the perceived value of what they do. It can also motivate them to look for more efficient and profitable ways to do their work.

Don't ignore overhead staff in this discussion. They may not do billable work, but they have vital functions that contribute to the firm's financial results. Avoid talking about nonbillable time as a drain to the bottom line; instead describe it as an investment—one that must be wisely allocated (hence, not too much of it). The firm simply cannot be successful without expending nonbillable time on winning new work, collecting payment and paying bills, maintaining the IT system, hiring new employees, etc.

These are what I consider some useful steps in getting staff more involved in meeting your firm's financial goals. There are others. Have any ideas you'd like to share? Or any opinions on what I've written here? I'd love to hear from you.

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